Big Fun and the Bee Gees: What really happened?

Listening to the latest episode of the always-excellent A Journey Through Stock-Aitken-Waterman podcast, I encountered a claim I hadn’t heard before about Big Fun, the short-lived boyband best remembered for their cover of ‘Blame It On The Boogie’ and the falsetto-inflected tones of lead singer Mark Gillespie.

One of the singles discussed in this episode was Big Fun’s final single from the original line-up, a truly ghastly cover of ‘Hey There Lonely Girl’ that was released in 1990 and limped its way to UK#62:

I knew that track had deservedly bombed and that the group was dumped by its record label Jive. But the sequel was a little more surprising: apparently there has been plans for them to record tracks written by the Bee Gees especially for the group. To quote the episode:

Moving forward with new management behind them, Big Fun had recorded a batch of songs written by Barry Gibb in New York that have never seen the light of day. But given Barry’s love of a falsetto vocal, they may have been a decent match.

I’ve done a lot of digging into Bee Gees’ history, and this was news to me. So what’s the full story?

When did Big Fun work with the Bee Gees?

The potential Bee Gees connection is mentioned in the sleeve notes from the excellent 2010 CD reissue of Big Fun’s A Pocketful Of Dreams album. Co-compiler Tom Parker writes:

With a hit album to their name and impressive sales internationally, thoughts soon turned to a second Big Fun album. With new management, Phil, Jason and Mark travelled to New York, where they began recording new material, including several songs penned by the Bee Gees. But with contractual difficulties as well as confusion over the creative direction, they lost their deal with Jive, and soon afterwards Jason decided to leave the group.

In this account, the group was still signed to Jive when the Bee Gees connection emerged. That’s also the version presented by former member Phil Creswick in an infamous interview with Hate magazine back in 2004:

We got signed by a new manager and went to New York. The Bee Gees wrote five songs for us, one was a good ballad, but nothing great. But the manager didn’t know what to do with us and then Jive dropped us.

Note that here, the songs have apparently been written specifically for Big Fun.

However, contemporary evidence tells a slightly different tale. In 1993, Big Fun attempted a comeback under the name Big Fun II. Newly signed to US label Imago’s dance subsidiary ä, they released just one single, a cover of the Brothers Johnson hit ‘Stomp!’:

The track did nothing in the UK but reached #12 on the US dance charts. No further material emerged, Big Fun II quietly disbanded, and Imago went bust by 1995.

However, it was during the ‘Stomp!’ era that the Bee Gees connection first gets a mention. A report about the single in the Birmingham Evening Mail for 8 April 1993 covers the story, and includes another insight from Phil Creswick:

Now they are back with a cover of the Brothers Johnson classic Stomp! and a clutch of songs from Bee Gee Barry Gibb.

“The flash clothes, giggly interviews and girlie appeal is behind us,” says Phil. “We’re managing ourselves.”

Given that Jive dumped them, it’s highly unlikely that the group would have been given the rights to any recordings made while still under contract. Doubly so if they had also switched managers yet again.

So the fact that the Bee Gees material is being mentioned suggests it might actually have originated from the Big Fun II era, and that memories on that point became scrambled in later years. That would also explain why none of the tracks were licensed from Jive for the 2010 CD reissue of the Big Fun album.

However, I’m sceptical on this issue for a more fundamental reason: the lack of any concrete evidence that Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb or Maurice Gibb specifically wrote any material for the group during this period.

What songs did the Bee Gees compose between 1990 and 1993?

The Bee Gees are well-known for their writing and production work for other artists, which sometimes leads to the mistaken impression that this was an ongoing feature of their career. But in fact that pattern is only really evident in two key periods:

  • Their early career from 1963 to 1966 in Australia, when numerous Gibb compositions (mostly by Barry alone) were recorded by other local acts as the boys tried to establish themselves as songwriters. (This is when the infamous Michelle Rae mystery recording appears.)
  • Their post-disco years from 1980 to 1986, when they wrote and produced albums for Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Rogers, Diana Ross and Carola.

Outside those times, when the Bee Gees were composing together, it was normally for their own recordings (band or solo). And that was very much the case between 1990 and 1993. In those years, the Bee Gees released the albums High Civilization (1991) and Size Isn’t Everything (1993).

A second key point: the Bee Gees were very careful to register their compositions with the US Copyright Office in order to protect their copyrights in those tracks. That was the case even when they intended to record the songs themselves. If the group had written a composition for use by anyone else, it would undoubtedly have been registered (likely using demo recordings made by the brothers).

Those registrations have been exhaustively documented on Joseph Brennan’s fantastic Gibb Songs site. And if we work through the period, covering the entire range of dates from 1990 to 1993, there are just 3 songs that were registered but not recorded by the Bee Gees themselves:

  • ‘Born To Be Loved By You’, recorded by US singer Kelli Wolfe in 1990 and released in 1993
  • ‘Let Me Wake Up In Your Arms’, which was released by Lulu (Maurice’s ex-wife, trivia fans) in 1993. This was registered in 1992 but actually written in 1988.
  • ‘Eyes’, recorded and released by Kelli Wolfe in 1992

None of these seems like a particularly good prospect as a Big Fun track, and certainly none of them was exclusively composed for the band. Brennan notes that Barry Gibb thought ‘Let Me Wake Up In Your Arms’ was more suited to a woman’s voice.

Big Fun loved a cover version. As well as the three we’ve already mentioned, they recorded ‘I Feel The Earth Move’ (just before Martika’s hit revival of that track) and ‘The Heaven I Need’ (previously an SAW-produced flop for the Three Degrees).

So covering an existing Bee Gees track would have been no surprise. But there’s a world of difference between doing that and having a song actually written by the Brothers Gibb for your band.

Hype is also real in the music industry. I can well imagine Big Fun’s new 1990 manager saying “Hey, I know the Bee Gees, I can get you songs from them”. Doesn’t mean it ever happened.

Given the complete absence of any song titles or leaked recordings and a lack of any likely song registrations, I’m going to conclude for now that this claim has more hype than substance. But if anyone can find other interview accounts or details that shed additional light, I’d love to see them – get in touch through the comments.

Leave a Reply